A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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With all the great fishing there is on the Kenai Peninsula, why would a Peninsula resident head north to fish the Matanuska-Susitna valley area? For Henry Anderson, an avid angler and 20-year resident of the Kenai Peninsula, it's more than simply a matter of seeing some new territory. He truly enjoys the challenge of wetting a line away from his home waters.
"When you see new water," he says, "no matter how experienced you are, you have to decipher its secrets. And the Valley streams are definitely a little bit different than the Kenai."
Another thing he likes: There's less fishing pressure, especially during trout season, on many of the smaller streams. If you are willing to hike, they offer a welcome respite from crowds and combat fishing.
"And most of them are clear-water streams," says Henry, which means sight fishing, actually seeing the trout and casting to them, which adds to the challenge. He also likes the fact that farther north a lot of the area is less developed and there are rustic campsites. You can pull over and simply pitch a tent.
Henry usually makes his first sojourn in the Mat-Su near the end of June, to fish for trout behind scattered pockets of spawning king salmon. His favorite time, however, is the fall, when the trout gather in large concentrations behind the much larger runs of silver and chum salmon.
On roadside streams such as Willow and Montana creeks, most trout fishermen use salmon-egg imitations "dead-drifted" behind congregations of spawning salmon. This is the same technique used in most parts of the country to fish nymphs.
In this case, a 4- or 5-weight fly rod is rigged with floating line, about 10 feet of leader and a small split shot attached about 20 inches above the fly. Whether you're using a glo-bug or plastic bead to imitate an egg, presentation is everything, which means a drag-free drift.
Although shunned by many purists as being simply a bobber, a strike indicator may be a fly-fisher's most useful tool when it comes to maintaining a good drift. Usually attached near the fly line, it not only allows the angler to detect more strikes and detect them quicker (essential when finicky fish are barely tapping your fly or bead), but it also serves as a vital information link to what is going on below the surface. In other words, if your indicator is not behaving itself, neither is your fly; if one is dragging, so is the other. More than merely a bobber, a strike indicator is also a drift indicator, instructing you on presentation. In shallow or clear water, many choose something light, like a feather or a piece of yarn, or nothing at all, allowing their floating line to serve as an indicator so as not to scare the fish.
Many anglers heading to the Mat-Su also tote along their float tubes for some excellent roadside lake fishing. There are nearly 200 lakes in the Valley and the best time to start fishing them is soon after the ice melts, usually around mid-May and into June. Lake fishing will often hit a slight downturn in midsummer but picks right back up again in the fall, hitting the upswing as the weather turns cooler and the leaves begin to color. It will often stay good right until the lakes begin to freeze.
Anglers heading to Valley lakes for grayling, rainbow trout or Dolly Varden will most likely want to set themselves up with an ultra-light spinning outfit rigged with 4- to 6-pound test line. Any variety of small spinner or spoon up to 1/4 ounce can be effective - Krocodiles, Rooster Tails and Super Dupers, just to name a few.
Anglers who regularly use spinning gear should not be bashful about using it with a large weighted fly, especially over weed beds or along shoals. The best method is to attach a float or bobber far enough above the fly so that your offering sits just above weeds or structure. Often all that is required to entice a nice trout out for a bite to eat is the slightest movement, such as a tiny twitch of the rod tip. This method is also the best way to soak baits such as shrimp or salmon roe.
Fly fishermen will want a 3- or 4-weight fly rod with a floating line and a tapered leader. If you have only one rod, this allows you, with a split shot, easily to switch from dry fly-fishing to wet. However, as dry fly-fishing is an option only a small percentage of the time, you may want to carry a sink-tip or full sinking line, which is fished with a much shorter leader of about 4 feet. This is where more than one rod comes in handy. You never know when one might break, but you also have the luxury of being able to fish both on or below the surface without going through the hassle of changing lines.
Favorite Alaska dry flies for lakes include the Adams, black gnat and ever-present mosquito. If nothing is rising, go below the surface with your favorite streamer, leech or Wooly Worm, or any variety of small nymph. Do not trek to one of these lakes, however, without a lake leech - a weighted leech pattern tied in a variety of colors - on a No. 6 to 10 hook. The only trouble with these flies is that on certain lakes they are so effective it's difficult ever to exchange them and experiment with other patterns.
Of course, the draw for most fishermen in Alaska is salmon, and the Valley certainly has its share of hot spots. The kings begin showing up in May and usually peak at the end of June and early July. Most roadside anglers use bait-casting rods rigged with, at minimum, 20-pound test line. The most popular lures are Quickfish, Spin-N-Glos and Vibrax spinners, and some of the best road-accessible fishing can be found at the mouths of Willow, Sheep and Montana creeks. These streams are also excellent spots for silver salmon later in the year. Silvers will readily attack most spinners and spoons, and these feisty 10- to 12-pound fish are a favorite of fly rodders due to their propensity to strike a variety of flies, such as leeches, flash flies and Clouser Minnows.
There is a large number of guides and outfitters working out of all the Valley communities. Robert Meals, owner of Tri-River Charters in Talkeetna, suggests that visiting anglers schedule at least a day of fishing with a professional - and that's not just because he owns a business in the area. It's something he does himself when he's fishing outside Alaska.
"The reason is simple," he says. "Even if you are a good fisherman, it's the best way to get familiar with an area quickly, to learn specifics on how to fish, on the best techniques - which are different everywhere."
It's also the best way to beat the crowds during salmon season. Most guided boat trips are reasonably priced and can quickly deliver anglers to a variety of secluded holes and allow them to experience a little of Alaska that is truly off the beaten path.
Freelance writer Dave Atcheson lives in Sterling. He is the author of "Fishing Alaska's Kenai Peninsula."